Reviewed by Isabella Depiazzi
Edited by Siobhan Hodge
Exhibition: String Theory: Focus on Contemporary Art
Curator: Glenn Barkley
Duration: 16 November 2013 – 5 January 2015
String Theory: Focus on Contemporary Art, currently showing at PICA, brings together over 30 Aboriginal artists from across Australia who utilise textile and craft-based traditions in their work. The exhibition is on tour from the Museum of Contemporary Art, and MCA curator Glenn Barkely explains that string, “the lingua franca of the exhibition,” works as a metaphor “to hold people and ideas together,” and idea that is successfully represented throughout the exhibition.
Scientific string theory posits that space and time have multiple dimensions, and this play on words is an appropriate title for the exhibition. The duality of simple thread and fabric, both practical and symbolic at the same time, forms the basis of the exhibition, and many of the most powerful pieces are those that play with the concept of duality and multidimensional meanings.
The Noongar dolls, the centrepieces of the exhibition, are particularly poignant examples of how textiles can create a meaningful story. Created from straw and recycled materials, the exquisitely crafted dolls are the physical representations of personal experiences, Noongar traditions and cultural identities and the image of the string as both physical material and conceptual link is a particularly strong one in this context.
The explanation provided by Cherie Abednego for her work, two intricately woven dolls entitled The Fettler and the Housewife (2011), reveals “our grandparents raise our families with so much love. I miss my grandparents heaps – their shoulders and their stories and their knowledge.” This moving description, specific to the experience of the artist but yet relatable on a broader level, is indicative of many of the dolls, which symbolically stitch together stories and identities to form a tangible representation of the community.
Woven throughout the exhibition was the theme of collaboration; as much as the works of individual artists were celebrated, the communal role played by art was also acknowledged. Dominating the exhibition space, the beautiful and whimsical sculptures of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, intricately stitched creations of, amongst other material, native grasses, wool, raffia, and feathers were joint collaborations between indigenous communities in the western and central deserts and art workers. Large and ambitious in scope, the fantastical figures are testament to the ability of art to bind together people and stories.
Further evidence of the collaborative nature of art was the work of Dale Harding, bright eyed little dormitory girls (2013). Stark and powerful in its simplicity, the work developed from conversations with his mother and grandmother, and evokes the experiences of indigenous children in State institutions. The enforced homogeneity and denial of identity such institutions imposed upon their students are ably represented through the nearly identical hessian dresses on display.
Works like those of Harding, and other pieces by artists such as Laurie Nilsen, do not shy away from exploring issues affecting the Aboriginal community and engaging with the contemporary discourse surrounding race and politics. Some of the pieces are more overt in their commentary than others, whilst others explore topical concerns in a more subtle way.
Whilst many of these pieces are successfully executed, their inclusion in the exhibition often feels a little jarring, and there is a disconnect between the work of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, for example, and the conspicuously politically pieces of Laurie Nilsen. The limitations of the exhibition space exacerbate the disjointedness, with the placement of the non-traditional pieces in a separate room contributing towards a feeling of disharmony and disconnect. Whether intentional or not, this effect impacted negatively upon the overall cohesiveness of the exhibition.
The bottle sculptures by Robyn Djunginy, twined with richly dyed pandanus, are an exception, seamlessly blending both political commentary and traditional art form. The bottles are beautiful sculptures in their own right, but undeniably reference alcohol, evoking both its misuse in indigenous communities as well as its potential to symbolise celebration. This dichotomy is a neat echo of the multidimensional nature of string theory.
String Theory revels in collaboration, whether within a community, between generations, or between indigenous and non-indigenous artists and the exhibition is at its most effective when these connections are embraced. Whilst String Theory struggles in cohesively reconciling contemporary pieces with more traditional artwork, it is nevertheless a successful celebration of fibre-based art.
With one work exploring the connotations of a profanity, String Theory is recommended for an audience of 12 and up.